A new study pitting academic expertise against a computer in recreating a 425 million-year old jigsaw puzzle has discovered that there is no substitute for wisdom born out of experience.
The research tested the reliability of expert identification versus computer analysis in reconstructing fossils. The investigation, based on fossil teeth from extinct vertebrates, found that the most specialized experts provided the most reliable identifications.
University of Leicester researcher Dr Mark Purnell said: "Being a palaeontologist can be fun, but sometimes it isn't easy. Take vertebrates, the group to which we belong. When a vertebrate animal dies, whether it's a fish, a sabre-tooth cat or a dinosaur, the flesh rots away and the bones of the skeleton are usually scattered before being fossilised. In order to interpret them correctly, the palaeontologist must piece them back together, or at least work out which bits are which.
"This is difficult enough when you have modern relatives for comparison; but what if there's nothing alive today that's remotely like the extinct animal you need to analyse? It's exactly like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture."
This is what faces palaeontologists who study conodonts. Lead author David Jones, who carried out the study while at the University of Leicester, explains: "Earth's oceans teemed with conodonts for 300 million years; they were the most common vertebrates around, and they were the first to evolve teeth. In fact the conodont skeleton was all teeth: a basket of hacksaw-shaped blades which was extended out of the mouth to grab prey, behind which lay pairs of slicing blades and crushing teeth a set of gnashers straight out of Alien."
Ancient marine rocks are often packed with hundreds or thousands of scattered conodont teeth, with many species jumbled up together.
"To make matters worse, within any one animal, teeth from different parts of the skeleton looked alm
|Contact: Mark Purnell|
University of Leicester